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Don't Bet on the GOP in 2006

By Thomas Riehle & Lance Tarrance

You know that Texas Hold-'Em poker game you see on some cable channel 24/7, where they show the odds to win for each player's hand as each new card is dealt? At this stage in the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans need some great flop cards, a lucky turn card and a killer river card if they have any hopes of avoiding an all-in disaster in November.

Political comebacks happen all the time. You just wouldn't want to bet on it in 2006.

By an 11-point margin, all Americans favor Democrats in control of Congress after the November elections, 48% Democrats-37% Republicans. The new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national survey of 1,003 adults, conducted Thursday through Sunday, April 27-30, also shows Democrats leading Republicans by 12 points among registered voters, 49-37 percent, and by 17 points among the most likely voters, 53-36 percent.

As poll sponsor Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report writes concerning the same poll, "In the other variation of what has come to be known as the generic congressional ballot test, when people were asked whether they planned on voting for the Democratic candidate for Congress or the Republican, Democrats led by 12 points among adults, 44-32 percent; by 13 points among registered voters, 45-32 percent; and by a whopping 18 points among those most likely to vote, 50-32 percent."

Those are formidable leads for the Democrats by any measure, but two things must be most troubling for Republicans. First, the Democratic advantage in these generic ballot tests is into double digits, beyond the reach of the normal overstatement of Democratic prospects that critics correctly cite as an historic fact when looking at either the partisan Congressional control question or the generic ballot test.

Second, the voters most motivated to vote are more likely than less-motivated adults to favor Democrats. For decades, Republicans have always turned out to vote better than Democrats, a certainty not picked up in national polls until the very end of the campaign. That turnout differential is critical for Republicans in a low-turnout midterm election. In this poll (confirming recent polls by Gallup and others), turnout favors Democrats for the first time in recent memory.

In this poll, we tested seven issues by asking respondents which ONE of the seven would have the biggest effect on how they decide to vote in November. The two most salient issues, jobs/the economy (chosen as the single most important by 19%) and Iraq (16%) both favor Democrats, while the issue that most favors Republicans, terrorism, is also the least salient issue (chosen by only 7% as the most important.)

All the other issues tested were in the middle in terms of salience: gas prices (12%), health care (12%), immigration (12%) and education (11%). Democrats enjoy a lead greater than their overall 11-point advantage among voters who choose health care and especially education as their top issue. (Education voters prefer Democrats to Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin, 58%-29%.) Gas prices proved a wash, not favoring either party or, frankly, generating much heat as an issue. Immigration favors Republicans.

In that kind of issues environment, Republicans can only hope the election turns into a Defend America election, with rising salience for terrorism (remember how the final weekend of the 2004 election turned against Democratic candidate John Kerry when the voice dominating the news media was that of Osama, not Obama?). Republicans have to hope Iraq fades as an issue, which is only possible if the situation on the ground there improves, to the benefit of Republicans. Republicans need a victory on immigration. And Republicans need to bring the election back to the ghost issue not tested in this poll, traditional American values. In that kind of "Defend America" environment, Republicans can scratch their way back into contention.

Democrats might be tempted to look at the salience of Iraq (twice as many choose Iraq over terrorism as the top issue) and at how strongly Iraq voters favor Democrats (by a 43-point margin, 66%-23%) and make this a referendum on Iraq that voters did not have in 2004. However, by focusing on Iraq, Democrats may inadvertently push the election into the home stadium of the "Defend America" Republicans.

A bolder, possibly more effective Democratic strategy would be to open a second set of issues revolving around domestic opportunities the Bush Administration has foregone through its focus on war. In a "Domestic Opportunities" election, Democrats would have to draw a clear distinction between their policies and those of Republicans on issues such as education (which is the opportunity door through which they can go to gain access to the most salient issue for voters, jobs and the economy). Health care is another opportunity for Democrats to draw clear distinctions with Republicans. Such distinctions give voters, already motivated by Iraq to want to go vote for a Democrat, another motivation to go vote and change domestic policies in Washington.

It's very early, things can change, and blah blah blah. Unless this election takes a dramatic turn to a new direction, Republicans are on the road to losing their majority status in 2006.

Thomas Riehle and Lance Tarrance, Partners, RT Strategies.

Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national survey

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